Eric Claeys points to the Barone article below (which I recommend you read). I agree with Eric that Barone’s point is true; we have all seen the soft 18 year olds turn into hard 30 year olds. How this happens is most certainly not understood by, for example, Europeans, where the softness continues until death.
But I wanted to say something about Eric’s point on how the educational system (below college) squanders a precious opportunity to really educate and to turn out citizens. I am certainly aware of this flaw. Most of my students are real native Americans (born in the US), and about age 18 when I get them, and almost none of them have much of a civic education when they get to me. (This is not to say that they are not patriotic in the ordinary sense of that term.) In other words, they don’t know much about the country, neither it’s principles nor its institutions, nor its great statesmen. They may have some strong views or passions, but it is not yet a civic or political perspective. They don’t know what their country is and why it is good.
So this is what I have to do to start their education in these matters. I tell them some simple truths about their country and themselves. I tell them they are the most fortunate of the earth, among the blessed of all times and places. I tell them this as an obvious and incontrovertible thing. And their great good fortune, their blessing, lies in the country into which they were born. I tell them the simple large truth, that their country, the United States of America, happens to be today the most powerful, most prosperous, most free, and most just country on earth. I tell them how and why this is so, that is, I teach them about the principles from which these blessings of liberty flow. I invite them to consider whether they can hope to have any greater honor than to pass on undiminished to their children and grandchildren this great inheritance of freedom. And then we talk for a few years about how they might best go about doing that.
Now, of course, this means that they get to know (and befriend, even) the Founders and Lincoln and the other worthies. They know the things for which they stood, their arguments with one another, the decisions that were made and why they were made, how the progressives changed the terms of the discussion, and what that means. In short they begin to get a fine civic (and liberal) education. Now this could all be done (and should be done) in high schools, of course. But it isn’t. So we start at age 18, and here at the Ashbrook Center we also try to have an effect on high school teachers by running them through some very intensive seminars on these matters (just the sort that they should have had in college, but, generally, did not). We try to make up for times and opportunities lost by trying to resurrect a college education that, if properly understood, is an old-fashioned high school education. And then, as Barone says, the competative nature of the society does the rest by demanding from them those virtues necessary to prosper in a free society. And, over time, they become hard, and tough, and smart, and optimistic. They work hard, play hard, and lough aloud. And the world is in awe of them, these Americans.
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